Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Historically Jesus Christ


I can't remember exactly when I was first introduced to the concept of the "Historical Jesus," but, as that label took root in my brain and eventually began to influence my understanding of faith, I have grown in respect for the distinction. In short, the Historical Jesus is that figure from first-century Palestine who would have been known by his contemporaries as "Jesus of Nazareth." He walked and talked and breathed and taught and was executed on a cross by the Romans. That sounds familiar, of course. There's nothing strange about that. But the other Jesus--the one most of us understand as the Jesus of the Christian movement--is the one who not only walked and talked and breathed but also healed the sick and walked on water and rose from the dead. In other words, the former is found in history books, while the latter is found in the bible. Make sense?

There was a big push in the Enlightenment to strip all of the unrealistic properties from the New Testament and leave only those parts of the Christian story that were rational and, in the mind of people like Thomas Jefferson, "believable." This was a nascent quest for the Historical Jesus. For me, the powerful insight came when I was able to see that the Jesus of History became the Jesus we worship in the light of the resurrection. Until then, the world thought of him as a remarkable man--a great teacher and healer with a dramatic, controversial message of God's coming kingdom. That Jesus was executed as a traitor of Rome. But the Jesus who rose from the dead is Jesus the Christ--the living Son of God, the savior. The Historical Jesus informs our understanding of the Jesus of faith, and, in some ways, the stories of the resurrected one help historians understand who Jesus of Nazareth was. My faith isn't threatened by the search for the Historical Jesus and the work of the Jesus Seminar. It's helped by it. But I recognize that, no matter how much I learn about the Jesus of history, to understand Jesus as my Lord and savior requires faith--something not provable in the historian's quest.

And then there's Bartimaeus. Do you remember how Mark 10:46-52 unfolds? "When [Bartimaeus] heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, 'Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!'" Mark brings us right up to that moment of distinction. The crowd even tries to hush the blind man. His identification of Jesus as "Son of David" was a radical statement. This was to place upon Jesus' head the mythological crown of his ancestor David. This was to integrate the Historical Jesus with the Jesus of faith, and the people weren't ready for that. "Be quiet!" they said to the blind beggar, but he yelled out all the more, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

As I wrote about yesterday, Bartimaeus sees what so many of us fail to see--who Jesus really is. Most of Jesus' contemporaries, including his disciples, needed the resurrected Jesus to hit them over the head with a physical appearance before they could utter the confession, "Jesus is Lord." Paul, too, needed an appearance by the resurrected and ascended Jesus, who struck him blind on the Damascene road. Bartimaeus, though, unable to see the physical world, has his spiritual senses heightened. He cuts through the layers of historical accuracy and lays open for us the true Jesus of faith.

The tension still exists. Was Jesus really raised from the dead? Did Jesus really walk on water? Did he really raise the dead? Did he really say all of those things? Is his legend pure legend, or is the synthesis of faith an accurate assembly of who he was? Bartimaeus suggests that, even though those who watched the strange preacher couldn't see it, it was there to be seen by those who used the lens of faith--even before the light of resurrection shined upon the scene.

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